Dynasty and the Price of Politics: Do we really get the Leaders we Deserve?

By Dipankar Gupta

Just because we live in a democracy does not mean that we deserve the leaders we get. It is as unrealistic to believe that voters can choose an ideal candidate as it is for a consumer to get that ideal car, refrigerator, washing machine, or whatever. Till the mid 1980s our roads were clogged by historical throwbacks in the shape of Ambassador or Fiat 1100 cars. The car of our dreams, that ideal four wheeler, was nowhere on the horizon. Yet we bought, sold and drove these unwieldy monsters for only these junkyard machines were available in the market place. And there the matter ended.

The same principle holds in the political arena as well.

It is true we choose our leaders in a highly festive, often carnival like, atmosphere. In spite of the festoons and speeches, posters and ballots, charisma and chicanery, we are really constrained to voting for one or the other candidate that is up in the electoral market place. We cannot choose our ideal candidate for that person figures nowhere on the ballot paper.

Why is this so? There are frequent comments in the media and also among idle gossipers that good honest citizens should join politics and cleanse the democratic system of the accumulated filth of decades of administrative malpractice and misrule. Why don’t such people turn up? It is a democracy after all. Where are they hiding? And why? Don’t educated people have a sense of commitment to their country? 

True and false. We are in a democracy but this does not mean that anyone with a gold nugget for a heart can enter politics, walk on water and lead us to that promised land. Just as a monopolist raises the price of competition in a “free market” through advertising, among other things, politicians too raise the price of joining politics by introducing violence as a basic qualification. Anyone in this business should have the ability to control, inflict and resist violence. Without the attribute one cannot even think of taking the first baby step towards political activism.

It is just not money that makes the political mare go, but one needs a whip hand as well. This is particularly true of newly emerging democracies where the electoral spirit is willing but democratic institutions are weak. It is against this background that the rise of dynastic politics can be best understood.

Pakistan has a population of over 150 million, and India is famously a land of a billion people, and yet we constantly depend on certain families to provide us the political leadership. The reason clearly is not that we are lacking in drive and resources as individuals but we lack the wherewithal of violence to make the political grade. While India can boast of a million enterprises booming every year, this does not translate easily into the realm of politics for violence stands guard as the gate keeper to political fortunes.

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto could have resulted in the leadership of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) going to somebody outside the family, but this was not to be. If Bilawal has taken over the reins in spite of being a political ingénue, it is simply because his family can control violence, take violence and ride on violence. This is true of other political families too in the region. How many can rise after a cruel assassination of a loved one to enter the political fray and risk everything? It has to be somebody who has lived alongside violence, seen it from close quarters and is not alarmed by its entry into their private spaces.

When we hear of a father grooming his daughter or a mother her son or a husband his wife it is really to inure the initiate from a natural repulsion towards violence. I have heard it being said, not just in the case of Benazir, that those who inherit the mantle from their dead ancestor or spouse, have lived, breathed and thought politics for the better part of their lives. This is certainly true. But it is not as if they learnt the craft of administration, the skills of statesmanship, diplomatic finesse, or whatever, but it is rather the ease with which they can handle violence and live alongside it, that qualifies them for the job.

It is not as if dynastic politics only happens at the top. Take a look at political satraps in India. From Shard Pawar, to Karunanidhi to Maulayam Singh Yadav, to Deve Gowda everywhere, in every corner of India, we see the familiar sight of fathers pushing sons and daughters, and husbands grooming wives, to take to politics. The principle of open competition, so that the best get into politics, is easily subverted because only certain people of exceptional social upbringing can handle violence as calmly as taking in air. A mother dies, the son steps in, a husband killed and the daughter walks in, is such a familiar routine that it must depend on some exceptional qualities that these people possess. It is certainly not brilliance, foresight, erudition or heart, but rather the experience of living with violence- facing it and using it- that separates political families from the rest. 

It does not matter then if Bilawal is still under age and cannot vote, he nevertheless qualifies to be the Chairman of the PPP. What sets him, and others like him apart, is his upbringing in a political family where violence is a familiar intruder forever leaning against the doorbell. This is a rare background and does not come easy. Politics is not for the faint hearted or the honest do-gooder. This is why we almost never get the leaders we deserve.

Every time a ghastly assassination happens at the top, such as that of Benazir, it raises by that much more the entry price into politics all the way down to the lowest functionary. This effectively shuts out the good guys and the field is left only for those who can handle violence with ease. That all this is done under a supposed “democratic” system should not blind us to the fact that the players out there in the middle are not our ideological representatives, or our inspiration points, but are patrons in command or in waiting. If violence is the key political qualification then law abiding citizens can only function from the sidelines, now casting their vote for one patron, now for another. The choice is really limited.

Patron politics is not incompatible with electoral politics. We can democratically choose our patrons and swing from one extreme to another in search of someone who will deliver and address some of our aspirations. By definition a patron is one who either breaks or lives on the edge of law, or else the person is of little use. What violence does is that it makes the system all the more susceptible to higher and higher levels of patronage politics. It does not matter if PPP comes in, or Nawaz Sharif, violence is now endemic in the system and assassinations such as that of Benazir Bhutto only reaffirms this tendency.

So every time a political leader is killed we must mourn not only for the departed patron but also for the further diminution of democratic politics in the substantive sense. Elections can still be held but it will be a contest between people who can control and inflict violence. To believe that after a leader has been brutally murdered there will be a lot of soul searching in the political realm is wishful thinking. We have heard it being said after Benazir was shot that Pakistan politicians are taking a long hard look at the role of violence in order to root it out of the political system. This was also said when Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were killed.  Indeed, this is a standard, protocol announcement made by those who have survived the assassination or have been touched by it as political activists. But it is just the opposite that actually happens. 

The truth is that after every such incident the level of violence rises significantly as the price for entering politics. This is why we never get the leaders we deserve.

Dipankar Gupta is Professor of Sociology, Center for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. From September to December 2007, he was a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. This piece appeared first on January 3, 2008 in the Mail Today, New Delhi.

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